Arts Desk

Fort Reno’s Oral History: (Dis)integration

For this week's issue, I reported a lengthy oral history of the annual concert series at Fort Reno in Tenleytown. But we couldn't fit in everything! Keep checking Arts Desk for more.

Though not always monochromatic, the crowds at Fort Reno skew white. The bands—with a few exceptions—have usually been white, too. In a city that until recently had a black majority, it's surprisingly segregated. Over the past few years, the series has begun to branch out with more hip-hop artists—including Head-Roc and The Cornel West Theory—but is the crowd any more diverse? There's still a stark difference between the demographic of Fort Reno and that of Fort Dupont, for example.

Barbara Luchs, 88, served as secretary of the Tenleytown Neighborhood Planning Council from ’68 into the 1990s, and as board member of the Northwest Youth Alliance from the late ’90s into the 2000s: [In the late 1960s], integration was just beginning and there was a lot of racist feeling. The people in the neighborhood who were racially biased didn't want the events at Fort Reno, they didn’t want tennis courts there—we fought for those—and they didn't want the swimming pool at Wilson. They didn't want programs like Fort Reno, because they didn’t want blacks and whites mixing together.

Natasha Stovall, 40, booked Fort Reno in the early ’90s: My memory of Fugazi shows is that the most intense stuff would happen. Ian [MacKaye] would be breaking down slam dances, and people would get really mad at him afterward, saying, “Why can’t we do it, when you used to do this.” There were always skins and punks looking to start something.

Hugh McElroy, 33, played with AKA Harlot #1, Black Eyes, Horses, The No-Gos, Hand Fed Babies; plays in Cephalopods: I went to basically every show starting in ‘92 or ‘93. I think the first show I went to was Slant 6 and Cupid Car Club. There were just a lot of teenagers there, but granted, there were also skinheads there, and that was less desirable... I got followed home by skinheads from one of the shows once. I was walking home, and they followed me in their car and yelled "faggot" at me—six skinheads in a car.

Head-Roc, 40, plays as Head-Roc and with Godisheus: To my knowledge, Head-Roc was the first hip-hop act to play Fort Reno [in 2006]. It was really surreal experience. [It was a very white crowd;] that’s the demographic around that part of town.

The thing I remember is when we got up and started rocking, people got a little rowdy. They were into what we were talking about. We were talking about D.C. I’ve been locally focused for 10 years now... I love rocking Fort Reno amongst the white crowd—I think my biggest supporters are white fans. I’m a black man from a black city that talks about what’s wrong with the system. Black folks aren’t always down to talk about the system, which is run by white people. What’s encouraging is seeing the white brothers on board.

Dave Berman, 49, D.C. resident since the early 1980s, frequent Fort Reno attendee: [On July 14th,] the first band, [Guilty,] was like raging D.C. punk rock, the second band, [Sound Limit,] was like '80s synth pop, and the last band was The Cornel West Theory, which was like political hip-hop. That’s one of the more diverse shows I’ve seen. They’re one of the few black acts I’ve ever seen play here. Fort Reno seems to run pretty white. Since I’ve been coming, there’s always maybe a few black people in the punk scene, but beyond that, you don’t get black families coming out here. Then there are free shows at Fort Dupont, and you don’t get any white people going to those. [My wife and I] also go to Carter Barron to see shows and we see like The Chi-lites and The Delfonics, and we’re the only white people there. D.C. is still segregated.

Head-Roc: Head-Roc has a very multicultural, multi-ethnic fanbase. I don’t have to downplay who I am to get my message across. The message is solidarity, and that translates well.

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